In A Book of Travellers’ Tales (Picador 1985), travel writer and anthology compiler, Eric Newby, describes Dervla Murphy as: “[An] intrepid Irish traveller, mostly in Asia and Ethiopia, mostly on bicycles or with quadrupeds, or on local transport.” Her travel tale is fittingly titled: “A lone female cyclist deals with a randy Kurd on the Turkish-Iranian frontier, 1963.”
In 1987, I set off from Australia to travel, work and live overseas for two years. I returned in 1996. During that time I backpacked extensively in Europe, the Middle-East and Africa, and (grandly) thought of myself as a traveller, rather than a tourist.
I kept journals and, as a wannabe-writer, was drawn to intrepid travel writers like Eric Newby and Dervla Murphy, and to books by other authors like Neither Here Nor There by Bill Bryson, The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux, First Overland by Tim Slessor, and many others. I even read The Travels by Marco Polo.
You may have noticed a pattern in my travel books. Yes, they are predominately about male travellers. It wasn’t a conscious decision, just that men wrote nearly all the travel books I found at markets and second-hand book shops (which is how I built my library).
But not In Ethiopia with a Mule, my first Dervla Murphy travel book, which I bought for seven pounds in the late 1980s (discounted “due to slight stain”). I was familiar with Dervla from Newby’s anthology, but Century Publishing’s 1984 book cover of a Henry Salt lithograph of the Ethiopian Highlands also caught my eye.
I travelled through Ethiopia on a truck safari in 1995. How Dervla managed to get about the country with only a mule for support and company in the mid-1960s is a tale well worth reading. But then, she was the intrepid Irish woman who rode her bicycle 3000 miles to India in 1963 — without support or company!
My second Dervla, The Ukimwi Road, is the 1992 tale of riding her sixtieth birthday present to herself, a mountain bike, from Kenya to Zimbabwe. I bought the book in the mid-1990s when I was planning an overland journey across the region.
I was in my mid-thirties when I travelled by local transport down through Africa. How fit and resourceful was Dervla doing it by bike in her sixties? It’s no surprise Wikipedia lists her occupation as “Cyclist and Travel Writer”.
My third Dervla was her first book, the 1960’s classic Full Tilt. I found it in a market on a trip back to England in 2007, a prized possession for which I paid one pound.
It contains the piece Newby selected for A Book of Travellers’ Tales, where Dervla fired a shot to scare off a “six-foot, scantily clad Kurd” in Dogubayzit, a Turkish frontier town I visited in the early-1990s.
In her customary fashion, the intrepid Dervla comments of the incident:
I felt afterwards that my suitor had shown up rather badly; a more ardent admirer, of his physique, could probably have disarmed me without much difficulty.
Tip: Click on a book cover or title link to browse or buy a copy on Amazon.com.au.
Oh my goodness that is a wonderful edition! I have over 70 ‘Dervlas’ in my collection but never seen that one! You’re not a bookshop, are you?
No, I’m not a bookshop, just a middle-aged dad and dog owner who enjoyed travelling in my younger backpacker years, was inspired by travel writing, and still loves reading the traveller’s tales of the intrepid Dervla Murphy.
And judging by her Instagram fan, I’ve got a few more “Dervlas” to collect!
© 2019 Robert Fairhead
NB. You might like to read Three Visits to Dahab, my account of the visits I made to Dahab, Egypt, and how it changed from 1991 to 1995, published on TallAndTrue.com, an online magazine, blog and forum for writers, readers and publishers.
Welcome to the blog posts and selected writing of a middle-aged dad and dog owner. Among other things, Robert is an editor and writer at Tall And True, an online showcase and forum for writers, readers and publishers. In 2020, he published his first collection of short stories, Both Sides of the Story (available from Amazon).